Monday, October 30, 2006

Being Inclusive During Group Conversations

My boyfriend is in law school and we often go on double dates with his friends, most of whom are also law students. I enjoy getting to know his friends and their significant others, but I've grown increasingly frustrated with one aspect of the experience, which is that people are almost always oblivious to any outsiders in a group (and as someone who isn't in law school, that outsider always happens to be me). The first couple double dates we went on, I was mildly annoyed that I had to listen to the rest of the group talk about classes, law firms, campus gossip, etc while I had nothing to add, and that no one noticed that I had nothing to contribute to the conversation. Even when we both made an effort to steer the conversation towards topics that everyone could discuss, the same problem continued to occur.

When people are in a group with others who are "in the same boat" as them (students at the same school, members of the same club, employees at the same company or in the same industry, etc), they tend to gravitate towards discussing their shared situation, instead of putting in the effort to get to know a new person. Whether people are lazy, self-centered or simply unaware, I don't know, but it's certainly rude to ignore someone.

If you find yourself in a group with at least one person who is an outsider, try to include them as much as possible. Here are a few easy ways to do this:

Beyond asking them basic information about their life, point out any similarities between this person and other members of the group. Ex: "You went to UMichigan? Dan is from Ann Arbor." And then Dan and outsider can talk about Michigan football, their favorite local restaurants, or whatever else.

Ask follow up questions. My personal favorite is "how do/did you like that?", as it allows someone to give an opinion on something, and provides plenty of opportunities for additional questions. This question also works for just about anything, and lets a person talk about him/herself at length, which everyone enjoys.

Address the entire group when asking fun or general questions, so that everyone can chime in. Examples: "Did anyone see Marie Antoinette? I was thinking of going this weekend.", "Anyone doing anything special for the holidays?" or "Has anyone tried that new Thai restaurant?".

If the similarity holding a group together is religious (they all attend the same church) or political (they got to know each other working on a campaign), it's important not to put the outsider on the spot so that they feel compelled to discuss or defend their religious or political views.

If you're the outsider in one of these situations, don't stay silent. Do your part to bring up new conversation topics, and to ask people specific questions about things that interest you. A lot of times people want the opportunity to discuss something different and they'll appreciate your effort.

I'm going on another double date this weekend, and if I have to hear about law for 2 hours, I might just die of boredom. Hopefully by employing some of these techniques, I'll get to know these people better and we'll all enjoy a more interesting, varied conversation.


Erika said...

Great tips! Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

Living in Silicon Valley, with an engineer husband and ALL of our friends in the tech indrustry, believe me I've been in your shoes too!! I remember one particularly bad night when we met up with some of his coworkers for halloween a couple years ago and they were all talking shop while I sat there, bored to tears, thinking about whether I wanted to switch my every-day handbag to a different style.

Thanks for the tips, I'll definitely be keeping them in mind. =)